Sex and gender seem inextricably married for most people. Many do not even know the difference between the two. This paper will explore those differences, the problems that arise when one comes into conflict with the other and possible solutions for those who face such problems. First there is a brief overview of some of the more prominent scientific approaches to sex and gender studies, next is an enumeration of some of the more common variant genders, then an analysis of the process of re-socialization for the individual whose gender identity conflicts with their designated sex, and finally we will conclude with three hypothetical and hopefully positive outcomes for the transgender community as a whole.
Three prominent approaches to gender studies are the theories of sociobiology, psychodynamics and social/cognitive theory. In this paper, sociobiology is grouped with the related fields of evolutionary psychology and human behavioral ecology, all of which seek biological explanations for human behavior and development. Psychodynamic theory focuses on familial relationships and their effect on individual psychology. Finally, social and cognitive theories of gender focus on cultural influences and approach gender as something that is learned throughout one’s life (Wood, 2001, pp.38-49).
As evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright explained in his 1994 book The Moral Animal, “biology’s official definition of female [is] the one with the larger sex cells,” that is to say, the larger gametes (p. 36). As fundamental as this statement might seem, one should keep in mind that human babies are traditionally pronounced either male or female based on their genitalia; and that, in biology classes, we are taught to think of men and women as XX and XY chromosome combinations (Fausto-Sterling, 1993, p. 22). Whatever this definition of sex may mean for other theories of gender, for the siciobiological approach it means that gender and sex are essentially the same. Boys will be boys, as the saying goes.
Wright (1994) summarizes the sociobiological approach to human behavior with the statement that the “evolution of human beings has consisted largely of adaptation to one another” (p. 27). Thus gender differences are the result of millions of years of evolution, much of which was shaped by human interactions. An important aspect of this theory is the concept of EEA, or the “environment of evolutionary adaptation” (Wright, 1994, p. 38). In other words, in order to understand current human behavior, we must understand the environment in which it evolved. For example, people are smarter than other animals because out-thinking them helped us survive. More specifically, men tend to be more sexually promiscuous than women, and women more discerning than men, because women can only conceive once every ten months or so while men can (in theory) procreate as fast as they can move from one woman to the next (Wood, 2001, p. 45). It follows from this that the reason people are generally more accepting of sexual promiscuity in men than in women is because, instinctually, they perceive the behavior as genetically beneficial to one and detrimental to the other. We could apply the same sort of analysis to most gender differences and throw in hormones, chromosomes and other sex-specific biological differences to boot.
Sigmund Freud originally posited the theory of psychodynamic gender development. This theory focuses on familial relationships, especially the mother-child relationship, and especially during the first few years of life. According to this theory, gender differences develop largely as a result of disparities between a parent’s treatment of female and male children. For instance, a mother might talk with her daughter more as an equal and about more personal matters than she would her son. This behavior might encourage a daughter to develop strong interpersonal skills, while a son might become emotionally distant and identify less with his mother thereby internalizing fewer of her character traits than the daughter (Wood, 2001, pp. 46-47).
“Social learning theory does not regard biological sex as the basis of gender identity. Instead, it argues that children learn gender by imitating others” and repeating behaviors that illicit positive responses from those around them (Wood, 2001, p. 48). Cognitive theory is similar to social learning theory but emphasizes the child’s role as an active participant in the socialization process. Cognitive theory recognizes several stages in the gender socialization process. For the first couple years of life, the child internalizes what she perceives to be appropriate behaviors based on the positive and negative reinforcement provided by those around her. Around the third year of life, the child develops “gender constancy,” or the understanding that the behaviors and attitudes she has internalized are gender specific and relatively permanent. The child accepts her gender identity and works to conform to the gender-specific expectations of those around her. We can expand this theory further to the general culture surrounding youth with all its institutions and peripheral influences (Wood, 2001, pp. 49-51).
Many people do not adhere to the male/female gender dichotomy. Many identify with variant gender identities such as transgender, gay/lesbian, genderqueer or intersexual to name a few. Intersexual is not necessarily a gender identity but a sexual designation for those whose genitalia and reproductive organs are ambiguous or do not adhere to typical sex classification standards. Developmental geneticist Dr. Anne Fausto-Sterling (1993) identifies three general kinds of recognized intersexuals: True hermaphrodites (possessing roughly equal parts male and female reproductive organs), male pseudohermaphrodites (possessing some aspects of female genitalia but no ovaries), and female pseudohermaphrodites (possessing some aspects of male genitalia but no testes) (p. 21). There are many variations to these three categories of intersex; and intersexuals themselves can identify with male, female or any of a multiplicity of gender identities. If “sex is a vast, infinitely malleable continuum that defies the constraints of even five categories” (Fausto-Sterling, 1993, p. 21), then gender must be malleable ad infinitum or outright indefinable all together. Whether gender is rightly the dichotomy modern western civilization accepts or the multiplicity that many transgender individuals suggest, one thing is certain: the road ahead for those who choose, or have thrust upon them, a variant gender identity is very, very rocky with an uncertain outcome for them as well as future generations.
Dr. Julia T. Wood (2001) writes that one of the first things children learn about themselves, before race or class or religion, is their gender; and from this they develop “gender constancy” (p. 54). In contrast, sociologist Michael A. Messner argues that gender represents a “process of construction” that changes and progresses throughout one’s life (O’Neil, 2009, p. 120). Gender then is not a constant but a process that can take a person from one end of the spectrum to the other; as indeed it does for many transgendered people who, having been socialized in the gender culturally consistent with their sex, eventually embrace a divergent gender identity (Singh, Hays & Watson, 2011).
The transition from a culturally assigned gender to a self-chosen one can be a complex and painful process, and not everyone follows the same path. At the 99th American Psychological Association convention, psychologist James M. O’Neil (1993) identified a five-phase process for traditionally socialized individuals to gender reassessment and acceptance: “(1) Acceptance of Traditional Gender Roles, (2) Ambivalence, (3) Anger, (4) Activism, and (5) Celebration and Integration of Gender Roles”. While O’Neil’s (1993) proposed “gender role journey measure” (GRJM), as enumerated above, was an early attempt to understand the gender resocialization process, further research was needed for a deeper understanding of the problems faced by transgender individuals and those attempting “gender role transcendence.”
Following in the footsteps of O’Neil, researchers Anneliese A. Singh, Danica G. Hays and Laurel S. Watson (2011) interviewed twenty-one transgender individuals on a variety of topics related to their variant gender identity and described their findings in the report Strength in the Face of Adversity: Resilience Strategies of Transgender Individuals. Of the various barriers identified by these people, one obstacle to re-socialization is the fact that the American Psychological Association pathologizes nonconformity to binary gender models by defining Gender Identity Disorder/Gender Dysphoria (GID) as a mental illness; though it should be noted that intersex individuals are not included in the definition. Other roadblocks along the path to re-socialization for transgender or variant gender individuals include an increased risk for hate crime victimization, job discrimination, homelessness and even discrimination within the LGBTIQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, et cetera) community. Even among transgendered individuals themselves discrimination exists as some judge others on how well they embody (pass for) whatever gender identity they have chosen (Singh et al., 2011).
Singh, Hays and Watson, upon concluding their study, noted the following common themes among those who reported successful re-socialization to a self-chosen gender identity (2011):
(a) evolving a self-generated definition of self, (b) embracing self-worth, (c) awareness of oppression, (d) connection with a supportive community, and (e) cultivating hope for the future. Two variant themes…were identified: (a) social activism and (b) being a positive role model for others.
Of the themes identified by the researchers, some that seemed especially helpful to those who lived them were community, activism and role-modeling. Subjects of the study realized that they had internalized the transphobia of the larger culture. By seeking out and finding support within the LGBTIQ+ community, they were better equipped to confront the psychological issues resulting from a lifetime of oppression from society and repression of their own identity. Activism helped many by providing a positive outlet for their frustration with the status quo and by not allowing them to fall into complacence or hopelessness. Similar to activism, being a role model for others allowed the individuals to use their negative experiences to positive ends (Singh et al., 2011).
There is the possibility that society will continue to oppress these individuals or even regress to more inflexible and oppressive norms. To many people this prospect no doubt appeals, but current western trends seem at least moderately progressive; and for the foreseeable future it is likely that acceptance will grow for variant gender individuals. Three possible outcomes of the LGBTIQ+ movement, should it achieve some measure of success, are a more inclusive set of socially accepted genders/sexes, a more flexible approach to gender roles, or—just conceivably—androgyny of one sort or another. A combination of any of these, as well as a vacillation between progressive and regressive norms, seems equally likely.
One possibility is that gender identities currently frowned upon will eventually gain acceptance. For instance, if a man chooses to have surgery and become a woman, society and the legal system would accept that person as a woman and mundane questions, such as which public restroom one may enter without fear of being ostracized or even prosecuted, would become simple matters. Another possibility is that science will recognize various intersexual and otherwise non-normative sex designations as valid and normal, and “corrective surgery” will no longer be the standard procedure for those whose genitalia do not fit the current dichotomy (Fausto-Sterling, 1993, p. 22).
Flexible gender roles
A second possibility is that the current inflexible marriage of one of two sexes to one of two genders will become obsolete. Society will move on. Granted this is unlikely given the affinity scientists and people in general seem to have for labeling, categorizing and defining even the most seemingly mundane of minutiae. However, this seems perhaps the most singularly positive of the three (of untold many) outcomes listed here. Any definitive labeling of gender to sex is bound to come into conflict with individual gender identities regardless of how many gender identities a culture deems normal. For this reason, refraining from a strict labeling system seems the only way to even approach the possibility of a future where individuals do not feel oppressed and abnormal for simply being who they are.
The final possibility that I will address is androgyny. While perhaps the most farfetched of the enumerated outcomes, it is also the most intriguing. This androgyny could take one of at least two forms: Permanent or temporary-developmental. For hypothetical purposes we will suppose this androgyny to be near universal and could consist of either physical characteristics (such as that of the intersexual) or simple clothing and gender role ambiguity. Permanent androgyny is especially unlikely as it would require major upheaval and unknown generations to attain. We certainly could not expect to see it in our lifetime. The other possibility, temporary-developmental, is also unlikely but certainly more attainable. This androgyny would not be physical but would simply consist of parents and the larger community allowing individuals to choose their own gender, if they choose a definable gender at all. General restraint in the enculturation of children seems harmless enough, and the results could certainly prove interesting.
Fausto-Sterling, A. (1993). The five sexes: Why male and female are not enough. The sciences, March/April, 20-24.
Koloski-Ostrow, A.O. & Lyons, C. L. (1997). Naked truths: Women, sexuality, and gender in classical art and archaeology. London: Routledge Press.
Messner, M.A. (2009). Boyhood, organized sports, and the construction of masculinities. In Disch, E. (Ed.), Reconstructing Gender (pp.119-136). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
O’Neil, J. M. & Egan, J., & Owen, S. V., & Murry, V. M. (1993). The gender role journey measure: Scale development and psychometric evaluation. Sex roles: A journal of research, 28 (3-4),167-185. doi: 10.1007/BF00299279
Singh, A.A., & Hays, D.G., & Watson, L.S. (2011). Strength in the face of adversity: Resilience strategies of transgender individuals. Journal of Counseling and Development, 89, 20-27.
Wood, J.T. (2001). Gendered lives: Communication, gender, and culture (4th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Wright, R. (1994). The moral animal: The new science of evolutionary psychology. New York, NY: Vintage Books.